Customer Dis-service


I recently had one of the strangest customer service episodes I’ve ever experienced. It took place at Café Bon Appetit in downtown Chicago. A group of twenty of us were eating lunch there. It is one of those places that has many food stations to choose from, then you pay for your food and find a table. There is no table service. It’s a huge restaurant. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the restaurant can seat 300 people. That is one of the reasons we go there in a big group — there are always plenty of seats.

One of the diners, who is on some sort of vegan, non-gluten health kick, had brought her own lunch. The rest of us had bought our lunch there. We found a table in the nearly completely empty back seating area. About halfway through lunch, the restaurant manager appeared. I assumed it was to thank us for coming and to ask how the food was. It turned out his mission was quite different. It had come to his attention, he notified us, that one of the diners had brought in outside food. That was expressly prohibited, he said.

I want to pause here to offer you the opportunity to guess the reason why outside food was not allowed in Café Bon Appetit…

The reason why outside food was not allowed, he continued, was because of the litigation risk: They can’t risk the possibility that someone brings leftovers from home, gets sick eating those leftovers and then sues the restaurant. If I had been thinking more quickly (and if my Minnesotan upbringing hadn’t conditioned me to say only nice things to people who work in restaurants), I would have asked whether there had ever been a restaurant anywhere in the world in the history of mankind that had been sued on such grounds. If there ever was, I can’t imagine the restaurant lost the case. I can think of some reasons why he might not want outside food in the restaurant (like seats were limited, but they weren’t limited), but that may be the single worst one imaginable.

Can anyone think of a worse reason than the one he gave? 


"The food you brought in is clearly more appetizing than the crap we serve. Other patrons want to know where to buy it."


I was told at a coffee shop in the Chicago Loop that outside food was not allowed because it was a health code violation. I tend to believe the employee since she is very friendly to me and I go to the coffee shop frequently. She had no incentive to try to get me out of the shop.

Mike B

In several independent situations I have heard or been told that bringing in outside food to a restaurant constitutes a health code violation. Without commenting on the wisdom of such a regulation I believe that the manager in question has either confused private lawsuits with the health code or that a private lawsuit would be made possible due to the health code violation. My question is how did this guy know the food had been brought in and why didn't you attempt to offer a bribe or threaten to make a scene to see if you could change the manager's payoff matrix.


for an economist, surely the only worse reason could be "because it's rude to bring your own food"

Romanna Bint Abubaker

1. The primary reason i would say comes down to consistency being impossible to manage if one individual in a crowd of 20 is permitted, what about in a crowd of 10, in a crowd of 5, then in a crowd of 2.

If everyone saw others eating their own lunch in the restaurant - people would come in groups of 2, one eating his/her own lunch and the other from the restaurant. Now it's foreseeable that the restaurant will A. Fill up much quicker and may well have a seating problem
B. How does the restaurant then rule on this, it becomes a headache for management to define when it is acceptable and when it is not, you can't create rules as you're going along and it would appear to be inconsistent treatment to all other staff in the restuarant.

2. Food from outside may take various forms, one day someone brings in their own specialised meal as you describe, which is wrapped up and fairly inconspicuous, but what of the next day the guy brings in a smelly fishy curry?

It would:
A. Damage the lovely aesthetic environment and the nice scents created by the restaurants' own foods/ efforts

B. Be a McDonalds/KFC box which is then on display - so as people walk into/past the restaurant they don't see the lovely well presented plates served by the restaurant, they see these ugly looking boxes? You've lost some business there?

3. When you walk into a restaurant, how often have you looked over at the person behind you's dish? It's natural - you like to see what they have? Each filled plate is a marketing effort - so if some of those plates are people's own concoction - you've also lost some marketing angle/ maybe even put some consumers off!

Romanna Bint Abubaker, CEO Qatar Consulting Group



I could see this as a problem if her meal had peanuts for example and another patron had a severe reaction to the nuts.


As an employee I am not allowed to bring a lunch pack from home but forced to eat here, why do you think i would allow you to eat home food?

Roger von Oech

Some finer restaurants allow patrons to bring their own bottles of wine but charge a "corkage" fee for opening the bottle. Perhaps the manager wanted to charge your group a "baggage" fee.

Cheers to all!


I actually had this happen to me once, at a pizzeria of all places. The owner told me that his insurance expressly prohibited bringing in outside food. As I was a frequent customer and often bought pizza there, he even comped me a slice by way of apology. I remember thinking that it sounded just odd enough to be true.


I can see why a restaurant would want to stop people bringing their own food but approaching a group of twenty where only one brought their own food is terrible management.


Why do you assume this is the worst answer possible? I assume he believes some overzealous lawyer (unlikely) or he is lying (likely). He may simply want to nip a trend. If 1 out of 20 brings in outside food, them more may want to do the same, and then he is ultimately offering free tables to non-customers. By blaming the lawyers he doesn't sound like a bad guy.

I would have replied that the one diner had specific medical requirements to eat the food he did, which couldn't be found in the restaurant. I would then offer up two pieces of information. 1) that the outside food diner wasn't the lawsuit type and 2) none of the other diners would bring in outside food in the future. That would allow the manager to save face and let him know that no trend would form.


"We here at Café Bon Appetit pride ourselves on 100% availability of food choices for our customers. If someone looks at your plate and inquires where they can get that selection, we will need to disappoint them. This is why we cannot possibly allow external food in the cafe. It would set unrealistc expectations amongst our patrons." ---Nah, I still think the excuse they gave was worse.


It's quite simple really. Restaurants make money by selling food. X number of seats x X number of busy hours.


It's a story designed to make it difficult for a customer to argue with the restaurant. The other story offered is that it's a violation of health codes. Chicago has the code for restaurants online. This is not listed. Maybe that's why they used the other story. You may also hear it's an insurance requirement, sort of what they said. I haven't read these policies but I can't believe they'd cover food not served by the restaurant, food not made or prepared by them. That means the insurer wouldn't defend the suit on the restaurant's behalf.

Real reason is they likely don't want people seeing this and then bringing in their own food and saying, "But you let those guys do it."

Many restaurants let you bring in cake for a party. They don't care if you feed a child with your own food. They just don't want adults getting the idea they can come in and sit. This isn't true at most cafes; you'll see signs asking you not to do this but it's rare they care if you actually buy things there.



As usual, regulations are to blame. Many health codes prohibit outside food. Regulators can charge the business with *criminal* violations if there is alcohol in drink containers brought in from outside.

There's enormous downside for businesses. Even if the chances are very small it will be litigated, severe penalties make it worthwhile for restaurant managers to prohibit outside food.

Thank the government for your poor service.


"Can anyone think of a worse reason than the one he gave?"

It just isn't done in polite society.


I don't know what the rules are in Illinois, but Colorado (or Denver) has (or had) a health code ordinance that specifically prohibited outside food in restaurants because of the difficulty of tracing tainted food under those circumstances.

(This was posted on the wall when I worked in a Denver restaurant 30 years ago, hence the indecision on whether it was a state or city issue and whether it still exists.)

I know it's not the "worse reason" you asked for, but it may give some insight on the issue.


FWIW, here are smoe Cafe Bon Appetit rules:

I would know the availablility of vegan food.

I have no problem whatsoever with a place that provides an attractive restaurant, heat, light, condiments, salt, pepper, cutlery, bathrooms, and maybe wi-fi not wanting people to mooch on that without a purchase, which is how they pay for all that. I'm sure if your friend sat there and ordered nothing, or maybe a free water, or asked for napkins and cutlery and condimetns, they wouldn't have said anything.

Rules are made for the extreme situations. What if there is a line and that turns some paying customers off and away? Even if it cuts down on free tables -- you yourself said that was an attraction to you. what is it becomes a hotspot with the homeless? "Occupy SBP".

I have no problem at all with the business reasons. And it is easier to say it is some arcane legal issue, which people understand is: 1. inflexible, 2: not at the discretion of the manager, and 3: if they know the law, may be counter-intuitive and blamed on some obscure precedent or forced by their insurance carrier.

Personally, with a table of 19 paying customers, I would have at minimum waited until you were leaving and tried to subtly take the guy aside. In reality I would have let it slide.


Kevin Duncan

Even in an overly litigious world, I don't really believe the reason offered by the restaurant is the true one.

A more accurate version might read: "We deeply resent the tiny amount of lost revenue associated with the dollar bowl of vegan salad you brought with you and are going to penalize everyone as a result. Yours sincerely, The Management."


That this would require an explanation at all is a commentary on the decline of courtesy and common sense in our society.

The size of the restaurant and availability of seating is irrelevant.

You should no more bring your own food to a dining establishment than supply your own oil at the Jiffy Lube.